Proof of Work Blue Duration sold 4 pieces out of eight, a good result. Considering minting the rest of the tokens to my own wallet, so that I have some stake in the value of the series over time.
I’ve struggled to properly articulate what it is the series is about; I feel like I’ve written multiple twitter threads which each come to a different conclusion. I was recalliing this morning a conversation with Jeremy Baily, who was my mentor a few years back. He pointed out that the feelings I have towards computers are feelings that many people probably have, and so my articulation of my feelings is valuable and useful to others.
Proof of Work is an expression of the futility of expression through computers, an exercise in trying to push artistic expression through the narrowest frame. It’s also an acknowledgement of the market driven nature of the NFT space, offering a very tangible fixed measure of artistic output on which the market can speculate.
it’s been really fun to see how the market responds to the series because it does respond to the obvioius markers of effort; Blue Duration sold very rationally with 128, 64, 32, 16.
But Proof of Work is a very cerebral work; it doesn’t offer any sort of emotional catharsis for me or for the viewer. I’ve been reading a lot of poetry, and what I look for in a poem is a complex expression which resonates; which raises some feeling in me. It’s funny for me to look at what I look for in an artwork, and then consider what I offer in my artworks; through this perspective I seem my work as very constrained and unexpressive.
The motto I’ve adopted in my practice is ‘the only way out is through’; that I honour the ideas that come to me, and try to see them through. Through the production of a work a new path is revealed, a new idea comes forth. Proof of Work is showing me how devoid cerebral work can be of the kind of expression that I look for in art.
The task I’m now considering is to make work with a greater emotional depth, that reaches the viewer without requiring the comprehension of conceptual conceits. It feels a bit as if I’ve been working my way through a thick forest, to now come upon a mountain that must be scaled. Art is hard, because at first you must know and accept yourself, and then try to distill some of that knowledge into a form that others can consume and resonate with. But I’m thankful for the opportunity to try.
manually generated images, 2021
“Art is proof of work, whether Whistler's "Nocturne" or an Abstract Expressionist act of heroism. There must be something to own, a parsable product of labour that represents the potential to exponentially multiply the value of an investment of time by the artist and cryptocurrency of the collector.” - Rhea Myers
Beeple’s ‘The First 5000 Days’ sold for $69,346,250 on March 12, 2021. Buyer MetaKovan explained his rational behind the purchase as such:
When you think of high-valued NFTs, this one is going to be pretty hard to beat. And here’s why — it represents 13 years of everyday work. Techniques are replicable and skill is surpassable, but the only thing you can’t hack digitally is time. — MetaKovan, Christies Press Release
MetaKovan identifies effort over time as the key indicator of value for a NFT. Dominant NFT aesthetics also reflect this sensibility; intricate 3D scenes signal that creative and computational effort were expended to create and render a scene.
In Proof of Work I probe this understanding of value, creating images where the visual is directly correlated with the effort required for production. Each series begins with a 1x1px canvas, doubling each day of production. This doubling allows the images to reflect distinguishably different degrees of effort, and provides a mechanism which ensures scarcity; each series ends when one image cannot be completed in one day.
The images are generated in a custom software, wherein one keystroke produces one graphic pixel. This manual gesture requires a physiologically bounded amount of time, and so the visual density of pixels in the image correlates directly to effort and time expended.
Each series uses a separate generation application, which converts user behaviour into graphic output. In Binary Random, the application accepts the entry of values 0 or 1, and represents these keypresses with black and white pixels. Through this interface, the artist attempts to create a random distribution of black and white pixels.
With Blue Duration, the application monitors time elapsed between keystrokes, and uses this value to set the intensity of a colour. The artist attempts to create an image of solid colour, by maintaining consistent timing between keystrokes.
The task of random generation and consistent timing are highly challenging for humans to accurately produce, and so the image inevitably bear patterns and faults which attest to their manual process of generation.
The patterns that appear in the the images can be seen as unique records of the hand of the artist; security researchers have demonstrated that the rhythm and pattern of keypresses can be used as a unique biometric identifier with the potential to replace passwords.
Seen through these findings, the images in Proof of Work are not just documents of effort, but are unique records of the artist’s hand; the patterns arising the digital equivalent of that essential element in the value of a physical artwork; the signature.
Feb 9, 2020
In August 2018, Yo-Yo Ma embarked on the Bach Project, a global tour exploring how ‘culture connects us’. In each of the 36 locations, he played a concert of Johann Sebastian Bach’s six cello suites. Alongside each concert, a day of action was organised with local artists, resulting in performances, meetings and exhibitions.
“For Yo-Yo, Bach’s 300-hundred-year-old music is one extraordinary example of how culture connects us and can help us to imagine and build a better future, but he believes there are many, many more. And for Yo-Yo, culture includes not just the arts, but everything that helps us to understand our environment, each other, and ourselves, from music and literature to science and food. The Bach Project explores and celebrates all the ways that culture makes us stronger as individuals, as communities, as a society, and as a planet.” Bach Project Website
I was invited to join the day of action in Montreal after a producer from Ma’s team attended a talk I gave on a project exploring digital agency over physical action. Titled www.grindruberairbnb.exposed (GUA), the project gives participants precise gestural instructions, guiding a group to move in sync, as an expression of the power platforms hold, and the possibility for collective action to occur through them.
Trailer for www.grindruberairbnb.exposed
Two days before the performance, I met with Yo-Yo Ma and his team for dinner at a hotel in Montreal. Walking from the hotel to a nearby bar, I explained the operation of the project; how the system delivers a series of instructions that enable a group of people to move together in sync. Hearing this, he enthusiastically asked whether the system might be used to arrange hundreds of thousands of people all across the midwestern United States, to make a heart that would be visible from space!
Video of GUA Performance w Yo-Yo Ma
Yo-Yo took the most optimistic read of GUA I could imagine and expanded it to the scale of a continent, and in the months following our meeting, Yo-Yo’s question continued to resonate. The idea of arranging hundreds of thousands of people was far beyond my organizational capacities, but I began to build a system that would allow a smaller group of people to collectively create a heart together.
The system draws the GPS location of each user to a shared map and links all the points with a red line. This design held the assumption that given this shared view, a group would be able to self-organize as a sort of emergent system into the shape of a heart.
Schools of fish or murmurations of starlings are examples of emergent behaviour in nature; each individual in the group keeps track of only a few neighbours, and these webs of awareness overlap to enable the group to move together. This behaviour can be seen in humans as well, as computer graphics pioneer Loren Carpenter’s 1991 experiment demonstrated.
Loren Carpenter ExperimentIn his experiment, he brought an audience into a theatre and gave each person a paddle with red reflector on one side, a green on the other. Cameras in the theatre tracked the colour being displayed on the paddles, and with no instruction, the video game Pong was projected onto the screen.
The audience was split in two, each half controlling one of Pong bats. For the bat to move all the way to the top, the group would have to all show green, and to arrive at a position in the middle would require half the group show red and the others to show green.
That the audience managed to play the game as a collective entity demonstrates, according to Carpenter, that a sort of collective subconscious was at work; each individual acted autonomously yet the each group managed to maintain relative control over the bat and play successfully.
In A Heart from Space, each participant sees the same shared perspective on their phone, and through it the group negotiates their positions. While the cycles of feedback are slower than in the Carpenter experiment, groups do success in forming and holding shapes.
Each heart created is unique; the same group performing the work multiple times will create wildly varying shapes. The vagaries of GPS accuracy contribute to this, but also the social dynamics of the group, and the myriad different ideas each user has about what constitutes an ideal heart.
During the development process, many versions of the system were created and tested. The change that seemed to hold the greatest impact on outcome was the logic behind the line drawing system.
Early versions of the system would draw the line between the users in the order they had joined the website. The group would first have to untangle the line before creating their shape, which created a conceptually interesting moment of physically negotiating the digital logic of drawing system, but ultimately proved to be a distraction from the core aim.
A second version drew lines between each user and their nearest two neighbours, removing the need for untangling. This presented a new challenge, though, as users now needed to be aware of their proximity to the other points, as well as their location in the shape. The tests for this version took a long time to resolve, and small shifts in GPS reading could result in big changes to the shape.
The current system calculates an outer line for the group each time a new user joins, and then keeps this line order fixed. This removes most of the untangling challenges while providing a system that will not change with small shifts in GPS. This approach also limits the range of motion for each user, as they are bounded in one axis by the location of their neighbours.
A group of eight forming a heartThat the logic of the drawing code is so core to the experience speaks to the conceptual messages of A Heart from Space; that behind the software we use are a series of design decisions, which make certain actions easy, others difficult and some impossible.
The vision of hundreds of thousands of people gathering together to create a heart visible from space, is also a dream of people coming together to address the deep divides and existential issues humanity is facing. A Heart from Space creates an embodied experience of collectivity through the network, and through this asks what we might achieve if the connections between us were made clear.
Aerial view of A Heart from Space with Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach’s Prelude Suite 1A Heart from Space can be explored at www.a-heart-from-space.com.